Murder Will In (Carolyn Wells)

By Carolyn Wells

First published: J.B.  Lippincott, 1942


2 stars

$_57__51917.1507654179.jpgCarolyn Well’s 82nd and final mystery.

“Carolyn Wells might have wished the long legend of her tale spinning to turn out in just this way,” Will Cuppy wrote.

“She left behind one of her best stories in many years, a mystery full of her special qualities and one that all her loyal fans will cherish.  It is a Fleming Stone case, of course, and it’s a model of Wellsian entertainment in every department—clever puzzle, wise suspicion-casting, elegant detection.”

Given Wells’ reputation as the Florence Foster Jenkins of the detective story, that may well be a backhanded compliment.

Society matron Alma McCleod is smothered at a house party on Long Island.

All the guests are swells, but little else is.

The mystery resolves itself to: Four men entered a room in which order?  Which of them killed her?  (Obvious answer: None of them.)

The detection is what Marsh’s detractors imagine her books to be like: chapters of repetitive serial interviewing, yielding little information.

As Don D’Ammassa points out, characters contradict themselves throughout, and the policeman has no idea how to conduct an investigation – refusing to follow up leads, out of deference to the gentry.

That’s not enough plot for a novel, so two-thirds through, there’s a sub-plot about a search for a missing heiress.

The one surprise is a Chinese butler who speaks “vellee muchee” pidgin – then reveals a paragraph later that he’s an educated man who talks like that to amuse his employer, and entertain her guests.

 

 

Doctor Who: Arachnids in the UK

This week, Doctor Who returned to the Russell T. Davies era, with a mediocre episode involving the companions’ families in modern Britain.

It’s also clodhoppingly political.

There’s no reason why Dr. Who shouldn’t do politics, and do them well.  The old series was a liberal humanist program at heart; the Doctor solved problems by asking questions and wondering how the world worked.

Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor was left liberal Green, from a Buddhist perspective.  The Green Death dealt with big business and pollution, and introduced environmentalism to family audiences.  (It also had a Welsh mine full of giant maggots, a mad gay computer that hummed Wagner and quoted Nietzsche, the power of crystals, hippies saving the world, and Jon Pertwee in drag.)  Other episodes were about colonialism and independence, xenophobia, British membership of the EU, and mining strikes.

Final script editor Andrew Cartmel wanted to bring down Thatcher; the Sylvester McCoy era was angrily engaged with modern Britain in a way the series hadn’t been for years.  It was imaginative and literate, post-modern and magical realist.

Stories interrogating free market capitalism, the class system, the doctrine of survival of the fittest, the workings of dictatorships, and the way ’60s idealism turned into conformism, took place in tenement blocks, psychic circuses, creepy Victorian mansions, insistently happy colonies, and symbiotic planets.  The cyberpunk, Gaimanesque New Adventure books went even further.

Chibnall tells the blandest, most generic science fiction; his episodes feel like every other adventure show.  After the dazzling cleverness of the best Moffatt episodes, it feels like the show’s had a full frontal lobotomy.

(Can we expect anything other than mediocrity from the writer of 42, The Hungry Earth, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, The Power of Three, and The Ghost Monument?)

His episodes are political – and obviously,  dully so.

The “TARDIS team” are designed to be ‘diverse’: female lead; older white male; Muslim Indian woman; young black male (whose grime music saves the day).  Jodie Whittaker is bland, when she’s not David Tennant in skirts.  (Why is the default setting for modern Doctors that wacky, zany, bloody irritating mockney wideboy?)

So far, the season has done earnest episodes about guns, racism, and what the blogosphere terms “toxic masculinity”.  (Only one – the Rosa Parks episode – was remotely interesting.)  We get environmentalism in this one: toxic waste creating giant invertebrates, lifted straight from The Green Death, with a dash of Planet of the Spiders.

Chibnall gives us an amoral American tycoon who’s running for president.  “The villain’s just like Trump; boo, hiss!”  Later episodes will, no doubt, see Dr. Who versus an evil American president.

And why is it so dreary and grey?

 

The Goggle-Box Affair (Val Gielgud)

By Val Gielgud

First published: UK, Collins, 1963


3 stars

Gielgud Goggle Box.jpgGielgud – brother of John, director of the first television drama, and collaborator with Carr – took readers into Scottish technocrat John Reith’s BBC (Death at Broadcasting House, 1934).  He also gave them The First Television Murder (1940).

The Goggle-Box Affair, a quarter of a century later, is set in the early ’60s worlds of commercial television and espionage.

I know ’60s television well; I wrote one of my theses on the debate between Director-General Hugh Greene (liberal) and NVALA campaigner Mary Whitehouse (not a liberal) over the purpose of the BBC, and the rise of the permissive society.

Television of the period was often experimental, surreal, and imaginative.  The decade kicked off with The Strange World of Gurney Slade (a whimsical, philosophical, surreal show about a character who walks off the set of a banal sitcom), and continued with The Avengers, Doctor Who, and The Prisoner.

It produced several outstanding dramas (The Forsyte Saga and The Caesars); entertaining adventure shows (Danger Man, The Saint, Adam Adamant Lives!, and The Champions); comedies (Not Only But Also, Monty Python, Dad’s Army); and thought-provoking science fiction (anthology series Out of the Unknown, Nigel Kneale’s Year of the Sex Olympics).

The golden age of television that began in the ’50s with the Quatermass serials puttered out in the early ’90s.  I’ve watched very little television made since then: the BBC isn’t what it was; American television is largely vapid; and Australian television unwatchable.

(“I tolerate this century, but I don’t enjoy it.”)

Gielgud could have done much more with his television background.  It’s well-written and characterized, and the opening chapters promise an entertaining mystery in the line of Nicholas Blake, Michael Gilbert, or his own classic Broadcasting House, combining a fair play puzzle plot with a look at the workings of a company.

The ratio of sound to noise is off, though; there’s a lot of static, too many talking heads, and not enough content.

There are some clever ideas (a TV producer is ideally placed for Intelligence work, and a man is driven to suicide with a tape-recording) – but it doesn’t add up to a satisfying detective story.

Note sympathy for a Pole who lost his country after WWII; and German refugees escaping to Britain.

Homosexuality is suggested as a motive for a highly placed spy to commit suicide.  The 1957 Wolfenden Report had recommended decriminalization between consenting adults; this didn’t happen until 1967.

The espionage elements were also topical; Britain’s reputation suffered in 1963, with both the Profumo affair and Philby’s defection to Russia, a dozen years after Maclean and Burgess.  Fleming’s Bond novels and the successful franchise (Dr. No, 1962) attempted to redress this through fantasy.


Quotes

107:

“I was brought up on the spies of William le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim; Silver Greyhounds; Monte Carlo, and the Orient Express; Balkan diplomats with beards and enamelled crosses hung round their necks, and slinky adventuresses, with plans of fortresses in their corsages.  Enormous fun – and you couldn’t believe a word of it.

“Which is a long way from Eric Ambler and Graham Greene: seedy little men in grubby raincoats skulking in shadowed alleys with half-smoked cigarettes and bad consciences on a salary of a few pounds a month: layabouts game to sell anything or anyone at the drop of a hat, and usually with nasty sexual proclivities.  That’s the contemporary accepted picture.  And that’s a long way from the real thing – the thing that matters: spies with solid social backgrounds like Alger Hiss or Burgess and Maclean; atomic spies with outstanding professional attainments, like Fuchs and Ponte Corvo.  The most important thing for the genuine spy, the dangerous spy, is his ‘cover’.”

 

191:

He had almost made up his mind to waste a couple of hours in a cinema, and was looking half-heartedly at the list of films currently showing in the vague hope of finding one that did not include rape, space-fictional horrors, the amours of French beatniks Italian layabouts or the English redbrick-student fraternity…


Reviews

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):

An excellent example of the tale based on finding out what a man has done and who his acquaintances are in order to discover who has murdered him.  The wife, friends, business associates are all turned inside out, and the result is a kind of interlocked multiple biography.  There are good reflections on espionage, too, for Val Gielgud is an educated man as well as a skilful writer.  (Compare [Frank] Swinnerton, On the Shady Side.)

 

The 8 Mansion Murders (Takemaru Abiko)

By Takemaru Abiko

First published: Japan, 1989

First English translation: Locked Room International, 2018


2 stars

Like most shin honkaku, it’s abstract and skeletal.

No atmosphere; no sense of the wider world; and little story or plot complexity.  The characters barely exist; they’re not even plot functions, more names to fill up rooms in the 8 Mansion.

The explanation (with lengthy cribbing from Carr’s Locked Room Lecture) is tedious.  The solution to one locked room is clever, if hard to swallow; the other is plausible, but not exciting.  Neither is in Carr or Chesterton’s class.

Nor is there any convincing motive for the crimes; the murderer, we learn, is mad.

There are, though, a couple of clever false solutions, and a boomerang misdirection.

It’s also apparently aimed at children (gruesome murders aside).  The police detective’s squabbling teenage siblings solve his case for him.  Sample dialogue:

I’m not jealous.

Yes, you are.

No, I am not.

You are soooooooooooo.

For yucks, the policeman accidentally maims his hapless sidekick.  He sprains his legs; breaks all his limbs; and sends him hurtling down a 200-step-long staircase in a wheelchair.

(NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!)

The Japanese also invented gameshows where people climb up spiked walls; are squashed by balls; fall into shallow moats from a height; eat spaghetti in dryers; and try to force grasshoppers down their opponent’s throat.  Usually while sliding over a line of oiled girls in bikinis.

The Secret of Chemnitz: Towards a Fascist detective story

The American critic Anthony Boucher maintained that the detective story was a quintessentially liberal genre, and could not be written in a totalitarian state.

In this, he was mistaken.

Last year, as some of you may know, I travelled to Europe for the first performance in more than a century of Halévy’s magnificent opera La reine de Chypre.

Anyone who collects 19th century scores and musical criticism makes contacts with antiquarian booksellers.

I had purchased Clément’s Musiciens célèbres (Hachette, 1868) from Gueymard of Lyon. Knowing of my interest in detective fiction, he showed me a curious volume that had come into his possession from a deceased estate.

The spine read One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, by Agatha Christie.  So did the cover page.  But it wasn’t quite the book I remembered.

I’d completely forgotten that Poirot faces a cabal of international Jewish bankers secretly controlling the world.  Or the part where he chums up with a young Blackshirt.  Or his proclamation that only a single strong man can protect society from the international Jewish Bolshevist conspiracy.

“I have seen the truth, mon ami – and the truth is Adolf Hitler!”

Was it a hoax?

Far from it.

The Nazis had, as everyone knows, prepared for war for years, building up their military forces.

Goebbels, with his evil genius for propaganda, had also prepared to wage a war of the mind.

He would demoralize the English by insinuating corrupted versions of texts into libraries and bookshops.

The detective story was the ideal vehicle for a propaganda and demoralization campaign: a genre whose very purpose was the hermeneutics of suspicion, and which inculcated in its readers a permanent low level of paranoia.

Trust nobody, detective fans soon learnt. Policemen, army officers, postmen, sweet old ladies, nice young things, respectable matrons, servants, clergymen, doctors, dentists, children, even the detective could be the murderer – or, in these volumes, secret Nazi agents.

German intelligence is everywhere, and you are not safe, even in your home.  How do you know your husband or your daughter isn’t in the pay of the Führer? Or your spiritual pastor? How do you know your postman isn’t reading your letters? How do you know your doctor isn’t infecting you with fatal germs?

The detective story was also, conveniently, the favourite reading matter of the English-reading world.

Under Goebbels’ supervision, teams of writers in Berlin prepared revised editions, which Fifth Columnists smuggled into the country.

Sir Henry Merrivale gloomily ended The Reader is Warned foretelling Nazi occupation of Britain, with London as a cloud of poison-gas from Hampstead to Lambeth, and a cowed populace speaking Esperanto in Billingsgate.

Others claimed that the Nazis were fighting a battle for Western civilization.  Thus, Sherlock Holmes defeated The Four of Zion.  As for Q. Patrick’s S.S. Murder, Herbert Adams’ Old Jew Mystery, and Rupert Penny’s She Had To Have Gas

Much of the Nazi effort went into Agatha Christie, the best-selling queen of crime.

In the corrupt versions, one Haken Gob’neau replaced Christie’s moustachioed little Belgian.

Gob’neau was a small, moustached man who looked like a third-class waiter in a provincial railway-station restaurant – but was really one of the greatest men in Europe.

He used the little grey cells (in Prinz-Albrecht-Straße) to solve his cases, and was accompanied by the loyal SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Gottstrafe England (who went off to Argentina after WWII).

Gob’neau would, at the end of each case, assemble the suspects in the drawing-room, and reveal the murderer.  He would also expose – and often shoot – various hidden enemies of Europe, such as Jews, liberals, homosexuals, modern artists, and other degenerates.

The list of revised titles began with The Mysterious Affair at Weill’s, an exposé of the decadence of Berlin nightlife, and continued with The Secret Adversary (about a left-wing plot to overthrow the government), The Murder on the Rechts (right wing is right thinking!), The Secret of Chemnitz, and Sad Cyprus (and Sadder Crete).

Then there were the nursery rhyme murders: Solomon Grundy Died on a Monday, or Never Play with the Gypsies in the Wood.

Even after the war, as late as the ’60s and early ’70s, ardent Nazis continued to produce infected versions: Blood Will TellAnschluss Night, or Endless Kristallnacht, for instance.

In “The Capture of Cerberus”, published in The Labours of Hercules (1947), Gob’neau restores the missing dictator August Hertzlein to power.

In “The Call of Wings”, after a disastrous encounter with Paul McCartney (symbol of degenerate pop culture), the protagonist has an epiphany at a performance of Wagner’s Rienzi.

This was the opera where the idea for National Socialism came to Hitler, during a performance in Linz, 1906 (“In jener Stunde begann es”).  The overture was the theme for Nazi Party rallies.  And when Hitler committed suicide in the Berlin bunker, the score (presented to him by Winifred Wagner) was in his possession.

It is easy to see why Hitler loved it.  The story of a charismatic demagogue’s rise to power, and his mystic unity with the people.  The Nuremberg aesthetic: excessive visual display, communal expressions of nationalistic fervour, the worship of force, military processions, marches and heroic oaths…

It sounds rather like this:

(Listen to 3hrs 8’00; the Horst Wessel Lied isn’t far removed.)

Passenger to Frankfurt ends with Hitler and his son returning from South America to quell the counterculture movement, restore order, and rule over a Thousand Year Reich, controlling the population with nerve gas.

Siegfried, the blond, blue-eyed, heroic mass murderer of the Ring, appears as leader of the Hitler Youth. The hero quotes Hans Sachs’ monologue “Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!” from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master Singers of Nuremberg), and his speech at the opera’s end about the supremacy of German culture.

Wagner’s only mature comedy is a warm-hearted five-hour musical in which a Jewish caricature is beaten up by the entire town, publicly humiliated, and then driven out of the community.  As Goebbels said to Himmler at the Nuremberg Rallies: Lawks, what laughs.

In Postern of Fate, German agents Bruno and Bibi infiltrate an English village to discover who murdered the Kaiser’s agents during the First World War.

The work is full of references to Wagner’s Lohengrin, in which a knight is sent by a mystical power to rule over the Volk as their Protector.  Asking questions about who he is, where he came from, and how he came to power is strictly verboten.  Trust him blindly, Wagner orders.  The first act ends with the chorus enthusiastically singing “Sieg! Sieg! Sieg! Heil!”.

These corrupted versions are scarce; British Intelligence impounded many as dangerous forgeries.

Dr. Botulus Wixener, of Munich, claims, however, that “Agatha Christie” is the forgery; the genuine writer (his argument runs) was one Grimgerde Ludwig, a pure Aryan, fanatically devoted to National Socialism.

In a twist straight out of one of her (their?) plots, Ludwig replaced Christie at the time of her famous “disappearance” in 1926.  Amnesia and a nervous breakdown were convenient excuses for any oddities of behaviour.

Ludwig served as one of Germany’s most dangerous spies in England.  She used her novels to pass on secret information to Berlin through her mysteries (or enigmas, or enemas) – notably about Bletchley Park in Norm, where heroic English Fifth Columnists Bruno and Bibi thwart two of Churchill’s most trusted agents.

On her trips to the Middle East with archaeologist husband Max Mallowan, she hobnobbed with high-ranking Nazis and discussed the Jews.

All the “standard” versions of Christie, Dr. Wixener claims, were really produced by British counter-intelligence.  They are the forgeries.

The Frankfurt school argue that Agatha Christie never existed at all, and that all her books, and all references to them, were created by a group of historians, writers, and philosophers in the 1960s, to see whether a fictional construct could be imposed upon reality.

They successfully convinced many educated people that Sherlock Holmes – a genuine London detective of the 1880s – was fictional, and that the imaginary Winston Churchill and Richard the Lionheart (made up by Shakespeare) were real historical figures.

History, as Anatoly Fomenko argued, is bunk.

L’Arbre aux doigts tordus / The Vampire Tree (Paul Halter)

By Paul Halter

First published: Masque, France, 1996.  Translation: Locked Room International, 2016, as The Vampire Tree


3 stars

Halter - doigts tordus.jpgA small English village.  Witches!  Dead children!

Hang on – haven’t I just read this?

Newlywed Patricia Sheridan moves to the Suffolk village of Lightwood.  Ironically, she’s frightened of bright lights, and of trees.  Or one tree in particular…

The one whose twisted branches tap on her bedroom window, and cause her bad dreams.

Buried under the tree is a 16th-century vampiress, hanged after slitting the throats of village children.  Meanwhile, a maniac is brutally murdering the village children.

In the 19th century, Eric Sheridan was found strangled at the foot of the tree – but apparently no human could have done it.  The murderer left no footprints in the snow.  Did the tree strangle him, just as in Lavinia’s premonitory dream? The same dream Patricia dreamt…

Halter - doigts tordus 2.jpgAnd could beautiful, half-Transylvanian Patricia, who recoils from crucifixes, possibly be … a vampire?

I’d expected a disaster.  The Puzzle Doctor pans it.  TomCat very much disliked it.  JJ says it’s for completists only.  And Brad hates it.

Four of the finest mystery bloggers are unanimous.

Translator John Pugmire himself only gave it a single star (out of four) back on the old Yahoo Groups list.

The only people who like it are Soupart, Fooz and Bourgeois (authors of Chambres closes, crimes impossibles, a 487-page analysis of some 750 impossible crimes):

[And cue the sound of puzzle enthusiasts writing frenzied emails to Locked Room International, demanding its translation sur-le-champ.]

****

Non seulement Paul Halter surprend toujours son public, mais encore parvient-il à remporter, haut la main, ce challenge: toujours plus fort dans la surenchère de la mystification!

Dans son quinzième roman, il ne faillit point à la règle.  Si les brillants ouvrages précédents captivaient le lecteur par l’ingéniosité du problème impossible, cet Arbre…ajoute une nouvelle dimension au talent du Dickson Carr français: cette ambiance fantastique et glauque n’est pas sans rappeler un certain…Stephen King!

The reason for the lack of popularity: People judge it as a detective story, when Halter’s using the detective story to tell a dark Gothic Hammer Horror-type story, with vampires, serial killers, sexual obsession, and insanity.  And blood.  Lots and lots of blood.

Taste_the_blood_of_dracula.jpg
One of the Milk Marketing Board’s less successful ventures.

Halter - Vampire Tree.jpgThe solution to the impossible strangulation in the 19th century is disappointing (and generally considered a cheat), but it causes two tragedies, one in the past, one in the present.

Here, for once, what happens to the characters is more important than the mystery.

As a mystery, admittedly, it’s not Halter’s finest hour.  The device for narrowing suspects down to seven doesn’t hold water.  All seven are at a dinner party; no murder is committed that night; therefore one of them must be guilty.  No, it simply means that the murderer didn’t strike that night.

I guessed who the murderer was; few of the other characters were sufficiently developed to make an interesting killer.  Hir scheme for diverting suspicion is an old one.  As for the motive – gore blimey and bloody hell!

It’s certainly not Halter’s best – try La 7è hypothèse, Le diable de Dartmoor, L’image trouble, or La chambre du fou – but it’s not his worst, either. (La malédiction de Barberousse, Les 7 miracles du crime, La lettre qui tue)

Notes

  • Lavinia’s diary describes murder in past in simultaneous narrative – c.f. L’image trouble, Le crime de Dédale, La chambre d’Horus
  • Greek mythology motif: sculptor makes statue of Patricia as Baucis

Blurb

Lightwood est vraiment un charmant village et Roger Sheridan, qui vient d’épouser Patricia, est heureux de lui faire connaître sa maison de famille, vieille de plusieurs siècles, et si peu modifiée au cours des années, où passe encore l’ombre de la belle Lavinia, qui mourut désespérée d’avoir perdu l’homme qu’elle aimait…

Patricia serait parfaitement heureuse à Lightwood s’il n’y avait pas ce cauchemar qu’elle a fait le premier jour, cet arbre si menaçant, ce vieux tremble aux branches tordues qui viennent frôler la fenêtre les jours de grand vent.

L’arbre a une histoire, la maison a ses fantômes…et le village ses sanglants problèmes: voilà qu’on y tue des enfants de la plus horrible façon, en les égorgeant !

Tout le talent de Paul Halter dans ce roman où le mystère voisine avec le fantastique.

The Upfold Witch (Josephine Bell)

By Josephine Bell

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1956


3 stars

Bell - Upfold Witch.jpgAnother of Josephine Bell’s competent, rather dull mysteries, aimed at an undemanding, middle-class, middle-aged, middle-brow, middle England readership.

Prologue: Farmer George Cutfield and butcher Paisley watch young author Julian Farnham carry beautiful young Celia Wainwright into her house.

When he’s gone, they find her dead – and they know what they have to do next…

Once you’ve read the prologue, you’re about 100 pages ahead of the game.  Mystery: who needs it?

Ten years later, nice, retired Dr. Frost and his nice Scottish wife Jeanie buy a house in the Sussex Weald village of Upfold.

They find a skeleton under the hen-run – minus the skull, but with a stake through the rib-cage.

Celia was married to the previous owner – and she disappeared a decade ago.  And the villagers think she was a witch.

A cleaner’s son fell under her spell, and hanged himself.  A butcher’s boy drowned in the river.  And her dog killed a farmer’s sheep – or was it Celia in were-form?

Gosh!  Do you think those two people we met in the prologue beheaded her to stop her rising from the dead?

The Frosts’ nice daughter Judy provides the obligatory romance.  She falls in love with Farnham.  He was having an affair with Celia, and may have killed her.

“Oh, dear,” say all the nice ladies who’ve borrowed the book from the lending library; “I do hope it all works out!”

Dr. Frost and his wife potter around, gossiping.  (Fans of Christie’s Hallowe’en Party will love it.)  Fortunately, he has a pathologist friend in London.

Whodunit becomes obvious – and is revealed – several chapters before the end; it’s the most likely suspect, and there’s no ingenuity, or memorable clues.

Excellent for those who don’t want to tax their brains, but would rather know most of the plot from the opening chapter, and not have a surprise solution jangle their nerves.

The politics of detective fiction

For JJ, who wondered what Henry Wade’s politics were.

From left to right:

Stalinist

  • C. St. John Sprigg

Marxist

  • Julian Symons

Socialist

  • Nicholas Blake
  • G.D.H. and M. Cole

Left-Liberal

  • Leslie Charteris (half-Chinese; in The Saint Plays with Fire, he argues the Establishment – business, Conservative politics, and the army – is Fascist)
  • E.R. Punshon (Dickensian liberal, attacked Nazis from 1933/34 on, published by Gollancz)
  • Ellery Queen (Halfway House!)

Liberal

  • H.C. Bailey (with religious zeal)
  • Anthony Boucher (wrote article on why the detective story was liberal)
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Anthony Gilbert
  • Reginald Hill
  • E.C.R. Lorac (anti-Mosley)
  • Ngaio Marsh (if clumsily, earnestly so)
  • Helen McCloy
  • Gladys Mitchell
  • John Rhode (until after WWII)
  • Rex Stout
  • Edgar Wallace

“Tory” liberal

  • John Dickson Carr (hated the welfare state and Socialists because he thought they were against individual rights; refused to visit Buckingham Palace because his gay friends weren’t invited; almost no racial prejudice)

Moderate

  • Agatha Christie

Weird kind of Labour who doesn’t like the lower classes

  • Ruth Rendell

Voted Conservative, fed up with politics

  • Edmund Crispin

Conservative

  • Michael Gilbert
  • Cyril Hare
  • P.D. James

Feminist Anglo-Catholic intellectual, with odd attitude to Jews

  • Dorothy L. Sayers

Weird kind of Catholic Distributionist anti-Jew liberal who didn’t believe in evolution

  • G.K. Chesterton

Barking mad

  • Anthony Berkeley (pro-murdering people, simultaneously anti-Jew AND anti-Nazi, while Wychford Poisoning Case will give a feminist fits – what a woman needs is a damn good spanking)

Tory

  • Henry Wade

Right

  • Josephine Bell (wrote for middle-aged, middle-brow, middle class; doesn’t like Jews, blacks, or lesbians)
  • R. Austin Freeman (have you read my tract about eugenics?)
  • Philip MacDonald (did you know that black people can be identified by their stink in the dark, and that white women who cross racial boundaries are utterly depraved murderesses?  Also proposed that capital punishment should be replaced with torture to death)
  • Carolyn Wells

Far right

  • J.J. Connington (Totalitarian)

 

Unaligned

  • Margery Allingham
  • Christianna Brand
  • Christopher Bush
  • Michael Innes

Nietzschean

  • S.S. Van Dine

Crime in Kensington (C. St. John Sprigg)

By C. St. John Sprigg

First published: UK, Eldon, 1933; US, McVeagh / Dial Press, 1933, as Pass the Body


4 stars

With much murmuring and personal comment the crowd made way for her, until some blithe spirit at the back called out to her in fruity cockney, “Hi, miss, are you carrying away the body in that there box?”

This seemed to tickle the crowd, and somebody else shouted, “Show us the body, miss.  Be a sport.”

Mrs. Salterton-Deeley prided herself on the good-humoured savoir-faire with which she managed the lower classes.  Smiling, she snapped up the catch of the hat-box and opened the lid.

“There you are,” she said.

Inside was a severed human head; the head, in fact, of Mrs. Budge.

Sprigg - Crime in Kensington.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The English blurb promises “something very drastic in the way of thrillers”.  There’s an “atmosphere of sinister foreboding”; “gruesome and horrifying” happenings; and “a whole host of yet more sinister events”.

Nonsense!  It’s not a Poe/Carr tale of terror, slathered in Kensington gore; it’s an early version of the Innes/Crispin comedy: a detective story written by a Clever Young Man, full of comic characters and dismemberment played for laughs.

Quite simply, it’s fun.

The proprietress of a sinister hotel goes missing; she turns up strewn throughout the place.  Rest in pieces, as they say.

Possible suspects include a religious maniac; a spinster who likes cats and séances; an Egyptian medical student; and a bacteriologist who adopted the Mozarabic rite.

Young journalist Charles Venables is assigned to cover the story – and solve it before the police.  Whenever the Mercury writes about a crime in future, their public will think of them as the paper that was cleverer than the police.

Not that the police are dumb, by any means, though it does take Inspector Bray till Chapter 11 to learn what the reader has suspected from page 2.

Where the book suffers is its lack of a SURPRISE! ending.  I was onto the murderer from the very start (Chapter II).  Like a lot of British writers of the period, Sprigg wasn’t very good at concealing his criminal; Carr and Christie would have made the smart reader suspect X, while really pinning it on Y (probably the nurse).

Christie, incidentally, used the trick for concealing the body in a short story (Partners in Crime).


Blurb

A very few pages of Crime in Kensington are sufficient to warn the reader that he is in for something very drastic in the way of thrillers.  The atmosphere of sinister foreboding which has settled down on the private hotel at which, on the suggestion of Lady Viola Buxley, Charles Venables has taken up his abode, the queer collection of guests – the furtive young Egyptian, the psychic and hysterical spinster, the clergyman who holds a medical degree – no the no less mysterious proprietor and proprietress, all seem to presage some peculiar and calamitous disaster.  And when something very soon does happen, something particularly gruesome and horrifying, it is only the prelude to a whole host of yet more sinister events.

For those who like their thrills in plenty, Crime in Kensington is just the thing.


Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (16th March 1933, 120w)

Sat R (13th May 1933, 130w):

Out of the hidden peculiarities of the Garden Hotel, seemingly so humdrum, Mr. St. John Sprigg has woven an exceedingly cunning entertainment, in which the human passions are lightly intermingled with horror and with comedy, and yet not so artificially as to seem unnatural.  [Pass the Body] is that comparatively rara avis—a detective story constructed on a basis of probability, in which the characters behave like real men and women.

 

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 9th July 1933, 200w)

Sat R of Lit (15th July 1933, 30w):

Unusual tale told with zest, humour, original characters.  Love interest present but not too conspicuous.

 

Books (16th July 1933, 320w):

Should this brief notice meet the eye of somebody craving a pleasing enough jumble of mystery fooleries, he may be assured of acquiring same in this volume…  Mr. Sprigg isn’t so awfully experienced at writing fiction, but his tale is amusing, just the same.

 

Boston Transcript (9th August 1933, 200w):

The story is well written, cleverly developed and dull only now and then.

Bryant & May On the Loose and Off the Rails (Christopher Fowler)

Christopher Fowler, I’d hazard, is One of Us.

He’s written newspaper columns praising John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham, Gladys Mitchell, and S.S. Van Dine (as well as later writers like Peter Dickinson and H.R.F. Keating).  He’s a fan of Michael Innes, while one of his books is a nod to Edmund Crispin’s Moving Toyshop.

He laments the lack of imagination in contemporary “realistic” crime fiction, considering himself a “dissident writer … prepared to present ideas rather than pursuing false credibility.

“There are so many other crime stories to tell, farcical, tragic, contemporary and strange.  It’s time readers were allowed to discover them.”

” Golden Age mysteries frequently featured absurd, surreal crimes investigated by wonderfully eccentric sleuths.  The form was treated as something joyous and playful.”

Fowler - On Loose.jpgFowler’s own books burst with joy, playfulness, and a lively intelligence; anyone who likes the literate, imaginative detective story (from Mitchell and Innes to Hill), or Doctor Who, The Avengers, or Nebulous, should read him.

His books bring an exuberant, Golden Age baroque imaginative sensibility to contemporary London.

My favourites are the apocalyptic Water Room (2004), and Ten Second Staircase (2006), a brilliant commentary on celebrity culture and mythmaking.

His own “wonderfully eccentric sleuths” are two elderly coppers, Arthur Bryant and John May, of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, charged with investigating such “absurd, surreal crimes” as a serial killer stalking a production of Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers, man-eating tigers, and impossible disappearances.

Bryant is a cantankerous expert on the arcane; he leads tours of historical London, consults white witches, makes computers and phones melt by being in the same room, and looks for the pattern behind the crime.

May is more the straight man: an elegant technology whiz, interested in people.

But Bryant & May are finely matched.


In Bryant & May On the Loose (2009), their enemies in the Home Office have closed the PCU down after the scandalous revelations of The Victoria Vanishes.

But not for long.

The discovery of a severed head in a freezer, and sightings of what appears to be a Slavic forest god have important political ramifications.

It’s a complex, vividly told police procedural, but rather difficult to follow in parts.


Fowler - Off Rails full.jpgBryant & May Off the Rails (2010) begins as a manhunt, then turns into the sort of tight whodunit, with a small circle of suspects, all with opportunity, I really enjoy.

A psychotic killer is hiding in the Underground; and a student vanishes from a moving Tube train in the two minutes it takes to travel between two stops.  Are anarchists involved?

The solution is clever, but I’m not sure whether a reader is given enough clues to figure it out.